RLG201H5 Study Guide - Final Guide: Dharma
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DEFINING (OR MAPPING OUT) THE TERM ‘RELIGION’
The term ‘religion’ means many di#erent things, and so there are
many di#erent ways in which we can say something is ‘religious’. Or
to put this another way, when the term ‘religion’ is used (and it is
used a lot, by di#erent types of people in diverse contexts), it is not
clear what is actually being meant by the term. A person might
think that its meaning is straigh/orward and simple, that religion is
a ‘thing’ that is the same for everybody, but such a statement may
be understood quite di#erently by someone else.
We must also bear in mind that scholars themselves are
responsible for how the term ‘religion’ comes to mean certain
Jonathan Z. Smith has argued, in a much quoted (and
controversial) passage, that ‘Religion is solely the crea5on of the
scholar’s study. It is created for the scholar’s analy5c purposes by
his [or her] imagina5ve acts of comparison and generaliza5on.
Religion has no independent existence apart from the academy’.
What he is sugges5ng is that the term religion is more useful as
something that scholars think about, rather than something which
exists in the ‘outside world’. This is a useful comment, especially as
in some cases the term is used to describe cultural concepts (such
as dharma) which are not easily translatable as ‘religion’.
Deﬁni5ons of religion can be a useful star5ng point, but they tend
to narrow down op5ons and o:en lead us to assume we ‘know’ our
subject before we even start looking at it. I suggest that those who
study religion and culture do not become bogged down in ﬁnding a
deﬁni5on, but instead work on the assump5on that in many
cultural contexts there is a ﬁeld of cultural ac5vity that is labelled as
the purpose of our study is to see how the ac5vi5es that go by
this loose term are prac5sed as part of, not separate from, the rest
of cultural life.
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